HTML: The standard that failed?

HTML is officially whatever the top browser vendors say it is at the moment. You call that a standard?

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Furthermore, assuming browsers always track the latest version of the HTML spec might be fine for Google, because its Chrome browser regularly auto-updates to the latest version. That's not the case for most browsers, and enterprise environments in particular are known for their slow upgrade cycles. (Witness how many users are still stuck on IE6.) Without a version numbering scheme for HTML, there will be no easy way to measure what has changed between the browser I'm using today and the browser I could upgrade to -- which, perversely, could make upgrades even harder for IT departments to justify.

But hardest hit by this change will surely be independent Web developers, who now face the prospect of coding to a standard that, by WHATWG's own admission, will never be finalized. Companies who contract developers to build Web pages don't much care about Web specifications or version numbers; they want their sites to look good and to work well on as broad a range of browsers as possible. But how do you set a scope of work and specify coding standards for a project when you can't even express which version of the HTML specifications you're coding to? And what happens if the specification arbitrarily changes before the project is finished?

Throwing the baby out with the bathwater
Hey, WHATWG: We get it. The W3C standardization process for HTML is too slow. Browser vendors and content providers are eager to pile on features to support the new generation of Web applications. HTML has to change and grow in at a pace more in keeping with that of the broader IT industry.

Still, the decision to drop version numbers from HTML is a mistake. A "living standard" is essentially a dead standard, because it amounts to an admission that WHATWG can't really agree on anything, except in the most incremental and revocable fashion. That's not a standard; it's a handshake agreement among a few of the Web's most prominent vendors, and an entire industry is expected to follow along.

A standards body that can't set genuine standards is a failure. In that respect, I fear WHATWG may be heading down the same road as the W3C before it. Say it ain't so.

This article, "HTML: The standard that failed?," was originally published at Track the latest developments in programming at, and for the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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